Originally published on Mindee’s blog.
Speech communication is a soft skill that is important regardless of the job you have. Public speaking is not just for adventurous people looking to participate at conferences, and the truth is that without realising it, you do it every day. Think about the one-on-one manager meeting or the weekly team meetings you have, or when you have to present a new project to your department – those are all public speaking!
So, although this article’s primary goal is to help new conference public speakers, and is formulated as such, many of the tips below (listed in no particular order) will be useful to anyone who needs to communicate -meaning all of us! Here are the tips in a nutshell:
- Be approachable
- Be energetic
- Be yourself
- Biological break needed
- Bring water
- Don’t argue with smartasses
- Don’t ask about your audience knowledge level
- Don’t be afraid to disagree
- Don’t focus on the people who look bored
- It’s OK to say you don’t know something
- Never bullshit
- No product pitches
- Repeat the questions
- Tell a story
OK! So you’re part of a select few who are confident sharing their passions on stage, and yes, that takes a lot of guts – but it doesn’t mean you are better than everyone else. After your talk, don’t leave the event: stay to discuss with other participants, and answer questions about your talk. Some people won’t feel comfortable enough to ask during the Q&A session, or you may not have enough time to answer them all. Being a friendly speaker goes a long way.
There is nothing more boring than a speaker with no energy and a monotone voice. No matter how complex your topic is, there is a reason why you are sharing it: you want other people to acquire new knowledge. Hopefully, you are also passionate about the subject, so act like it.
Don’t try to imitate the style of colleagues or other speakers you may know or like. Don’t force jokes if it’s not natural. People came to see YOU, not someone else, or at least, they are looking to know more about your topic of interest, so scratch the impersonator show.
I know it sounds like it’s advice for a 5-year-old, but needing to go to the restroom during a talk is the worst. I’m getting bad memories just by writing this tip. So no matter what, do a preventive biological break before. You’ll thank me later!
You may think you won’t need it or won’t be thirsty, but bring some water. At some conferences, organisers will have water bottles ready for the speakers, but quite often, it’s not the case. You never know when your mouth will run dry from all this talking. Worst case, you won’t need it. But better be prepared than not. This tip is coming from a guy who talks a lot all the time – just ask my coworkers!
Quite often, you’ll run into people who know or think they know more than you. That person will disagree with you or may even try to trick you. I’ve personally never understood the tricking part, but trust me – trolls aren’t limited to the world wide web!
They may be right: in that situation, acknowledge it, and thank them for helping you rectify something you said that wasn’t correct. Nobody is perfect, and you can make mistakes. Actually, you have the utmost right to make mistakes: we are humans, after all.
As for the people that wish to derail the discussion in another direction, tell them you can discuss their specific concerns after the panel. After all, you want to be mindful of time, the topic, and others who may want to ask questions. For your reference, this should be the job of the panel MC or conference organisers (or track leads), but they don’t often intervene.
As a speaker, sometimes you want to know if you need to explain a concept in detail, or if you should skip certain slides you think may be obvious for the people in the room. However, asking your audience if they are knowledgeable on specific topics should be avoided. Nobody wants to raise their hand in a group of 10, 100, 1000 people and say that they are lacking the same knowledge as their peers. Either assume everybody knows the topic while setting the knowledge expectations in your abstract or assume nobody knows and prepare your content in consequences.
Especially in a panel setup, it would be boring if everybody agrees on everything. The same goes for the remark of someone in the audience not agreeing with what you just said. It’s fine! First, consider their point, and if it’s still not something you can agree with, disagree, but respectfully.
You cannot please everyone, and sometimes, people who look bored in the audience, may not be at all, trust me. It can be due to other factors, or the fact that you are speaking right after the lunch break.
I once had the most bored looking attendee in one of my talks. Believe it or not, this exact person came to find me during the break to tell me he absolutely loved my talk and that, bare with me here, it was the best one he’d ever seen! I was mind blown as I wasn’t expecting it at all. All this to say, don’t focus on the bored attendees: focus on your talk!
This one kind of relates to the “no bullshit” tip, but even more than lying or deforming and embellishing the truth, if you don’t know something, just say it. It’s fine. Seriously. Nobody knows everything!
If you don’t have an answer, here’s what you should do: say you’ll find the information and will report back to the person who asked. Doing this not only shows that you care about the topic but also the people attending your talk.
Always tell the truth: if you don’t, it will always come back to haunt you. If the truth is ugly, you don’t have to say it, but don’t lie either! Consider this tip a life tip rather than something that only applies to public speaking.
Unless the panel is about your product or the technologies around your product – or the conferences explicitly asked you to share product information, don’t try to place your corporate messaging into your talk. Nobody likes product pitches, but developers are way more sensible about them!
You can, when introducing yourself, include a one-liner about what your company does. As an example, here’s what I do:
Hi, I’m Fred, Director of Developer Relations at Mindee. We offer document data extraction APIs for developers.
Short & sweet! You can also add a slide with your contact information at the end, listing the company website.
If there is a question from someone in the audience without a microphone, repeat the question before answering: it ensures that everybody understands it. Do the same for comments from the audience. If the event is online, do the same for questions taken from the chat. Without anyone hearing or seeing the question, your answer will be out of context and may not be understandable.
It’s not just kids who love stories: we all do, no matter how old we are. So when sharing about a specific topic, make it a narrative. And not in the sense of a magical Walt Disney way, but be clear about why you are sharing the subject and why people should care.
After all, you decided to learn about a specific technology because you found it interesting and may have uncovered a specific problem. Hopefully, the fact that you’re giving this talk means you’ve solved such an issue, which in the end, is all we want.
It may be scary, and you may be stressed out. You may even think, why me? I’m no expert, or maybe you think someone else should be talking about this specific topic.
But you are an expert. You know more than many others, and we were all beginners once. Be proud that you are on stage, and other people in the room are not: it’s true, you are the one taking on this challenge of public speaking. Your first talk may not be the performance of your life, but like with everything else, you’ll get better over time!